Cancel the eulogies and send the moirologists home. We don’t need them just yet. It turns out the death of the Columbus art scene was an exaggeration after all.
Oh, you hadn’t heard? The fact is there’s been a lot of hand wringing lately over the state of the arts in central Ohio. Most of the concern focuses on the inability of the highly touted Wonderland project to deliver on its early promise. To hear the detractors tell it, the fate of our creative community is inextricably linked to the success or failure of this single initiative. As Wonderland founders, so do the arts. This narrative casts Wonderland as the albatross around the neck of the entire art scene; the punishment meted out for every gullible artist and guileless non-profit that dared believe the hype or invest in the dream.
In fairness to the doomsayers, Wonderland’s slow start isn’t the only thing that’s raised questions about the state of the arts. Other near-death indicators have included the diminishing role of Junctionview Studios, the shuttering of The Mahan Gallery, the precarious status of the Milo compound, and the Ohio Art League’s exodus from the Short North.
Apparently – at least in the minds of some – these events lead to just one inescapable conclusion: the Columbus art scene is dead.
Except it’s not.
Seriously. It’s not.
If anything, we’ve witnessed a rebirth of support for the arts in central Ohio. Consider what’s been going on in just the last few years: The Peggy R. McConnell Arts Center of Worthington opened. The Jeanne B. McCoy Community Center for the Arts opened. The Garden Theater re-opened in support of a brand new theater company. Wild Goose Creative opened. The studios at 400 Rich Street opened. The OSU Urban Art Space opened. The Columbus Museum of Art completed a major renovation. Urban Scrawl launched. Independents Day launched. Chop Chop Gallery opened. Gallery 83 opened. CAW, MAW, the GVAL, and the NAAL all started up. The Ohio Art League turned 100. We’ve even got Ron Pizzuti on board in the form of a new art-themed hotel and gallery space being planned for the Short North. Hell, even the street art is improving around here.
So yeah. The arts in Columbus. Not dead.
Of course a more immediate and rewarding way to experience the vitality of the Columbus art scene would be to…well…go see some art. Specifically I’d recommend a trip to Fort Hayes to take in the stunning exhibition CAW: Creating Our History.
For those unfamiliar with this relatively new acronym, CAW stands for Creative Arts of Women. Established in 2009, CAW describes itself as a collective of women artists and enthusiasts working together to provide support, networking, feedback, and opportunities for its members. It’s a noble cause, and if Creating Our History is any indication, the group is doing a lot of things right.
The exhibition features 28 artists charged with the daunting task of filling a very expansive Shot Tower gallery. They manage this job by incorporating an array of large sculptures, paintings, and installations into the mix. As it turns out, the scale of the work is by design. Exhibition coordinator and CAW member Helma Groot explains, “We asked our CAW members to work big for this show, that was the only requirement. For 2-D it had to be at least 36″ in any direction, for 3-D work had to be at least 12″ in any direction”. The members got the hint and filled the space admirably.
At this point it should surprise no one that the artists represented in Creating Our History are all women. That said, I’m not convinced that gender is what the show is explicitly about. Put another way, those hoping for a girl power treatise or third-wave manifesto will likely be disappointed. Sure, Making Our History opened to coincide with Women’s History Month, but beyond that its intent is pretty ambiguous. The group provides no curatorial statement and no explicit agenda. The organizers have opted instead to present basic biographical information for each artist along with each artist’s statement.
Personally I find this approach refreshing. It acknowledges the artists as individuals while leaving the viewer with enough information, context, and space to draw their own conclusions. Good art creates a dialogue between the artist and the viewer after all. It’s not a broadcast medium.
So what of the art? It’s ambitious, eclectic, thoughtful, provocative, and positively refreshing. As with any group show – particularly one that offers an open call – the work covers a wide range of mediums and styles. It’s clear that while many of the artists have found their voice, others are still refining their approach. I expect too that the size requirements presented a fresh challenge for a number of the participating artists. That said, the pieces that are good are jaw-droppingly good.
Pin by Linda Diec is an excellent example. It strikes a perfect chord, deftly re-purposing thousands of wooden clothespins into something wholly unexpected. This is exactly how transformational art is supposed to work. The pins, linked together and pointing the same direction, snake and spill across the gallery floor, creating a work that’s equal parts river, rug, and swarm. Comparisons to Ai Weiwei’s now famous sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern are nearly impossible to ignore as Diec transforms the humble clothespin into something entirely new.
Catherine Bell Smith’s Acension is similarly effective, serving as a vertical counterpoint to Diec’s resolutely horizontal work. In Acension Smith utilizes hundreds of pieces of sycamore bark (along with wire, and steel) to create a pair of columns that play on the concept of duality. The twin cylindrical shapes seem to rise up and cascade down all at once. And while they echo the solid form of mature trees, they are more space than mass. Smith is an accomplished installation artist and it’s exciting to see her in a space where her ideas can be brought to fruition.
Cat Sheridan’s installation piece Red Tape is arguably the most politically explicit work in the show. It features the word uterus carved out of – you guessed it! – red tape. Honestly, in less skilled hands this idea would have failed miserably. It’s too literal. It’s too obvious. Sheridan makes it work though, creating a piece that’s so perfectly crafted and so hypnotically mesmerizing that you lose yourself in the sheer, simple elegance of it. Somewhere along the line (I blame Goya) we bought into the idea that social commentary in art was something artists were expected to bludgeon people with. Art with a message had to be brutal and unsettling; the more shocking the better. Sheridan, to her credit, turns her back on this ham-handed tradition. Red Tape instead harnesses the spare vocabulary and cool objectivity of Op and Conceptual art to provide a new way of integrating politics into art.
Creating Our History isn’t just installations and sculptures though. There’s plenty of first-rate two-dimensional works on display as well. Barbara Vogel’s Cosmos series of encaustic fused photographs blur the line (literally) between paintings and photography. Works from Mabi Ponce De Leon’s Mounds series offer thoughtful meditations on both time and place. Stephanie Rond continues to explore that space where stencils, street art and the traditional picture plane intersect.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The list of additional participants reads like a who’s who of local artists, including Betsy Defusco, Helma Groot, Amandda Tiery Graham, Sharon Dorsey, Mary Ann Crago, and Amy Neiwirth.
In a way, CAW: Creating Our History is exactly the right show at exactly the right time. It presents not just great art, but a great way of organizing, focusing, and ultimately taking responsibility for the creative community we live in. It’s a blueprint for what a successful, self-directed and vital art scene can be.
Long live CAW, and long live the arts in Columbus.
CAW: Creating Our History runs March 5th through April 20th.
Fort Hayes Shot Tower Gallery
546 Jack Gibbs Blvd
Columbus, OH 43215
Monday and Tuesday: 8:00 AM – 4:00 PM
Wednesday: 8:00 AM – 6:00 PM,
Thursday and Friday: 8:00 AM – 4:00 PM
Mabi Ponce De Leon
Acrylic, oil, mixed media on canvas
Catherine Bell Smith
Sycamore bark, wire, steel hoops
Cosmos Series (one of four)
Giclee photographs fused with encaustic paint